Ryan van Duzer – Interview

Ryan van Duzer’s intro to a short clip pretty much says it all: “My name is Ryan van Duzer, and I travel in search of adventure and, most of all, fun! [War hoop]”

I heard Ryan give a keynote speech last year at a video conference. He described his origins as an adventure filmmaker and how he’s taken the simplist of equipment and built a career traveling the world and producing shows for the likes of Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the Travel Channel.

Here’s what inspires me:
1. Ryan isn’t obsessed with gear. He takes what he has and makes it work.
2. Ryan has been successful by force of personality (which since he does travel narratives, means he builds his work around an interesting character).
3. He’s getting it done.

During the keynote, Ryan insisted, “There’s nothing I’m doing that any one of you out there cannot also do, right now.” From a technical point of view, that’s true. Simple gear, simple technique. But not everyone’s Ryan van Duzer – and like a charismatic preacher he’s got a high-energy style that is not easily replicated. He’s got … character. I find myself very tolerant of the sometimes poor image quality and wind noise and other blemishes on Ryan’s work because I can experience his adventures through his character. I never thought about riding a Big Wheels tricycle across Iowa, but with Ryan I can see myself doing that. Maybe.

Ryan was kind enough to answer some questions about his work.

Q1. You’ve managed to document a number of long-distance bike trips with very simple, light-weight equipment, shooting the whole thing solo. Can you tell me a little about how you did that?

Duzer: My first big bike trip was from Honduras to Boulder. I really wanted to document it and I used my trusty Sony DCR-PC9 (about the size of my palm). Having a small camera is KEY to documenting bike trips. I’d say that 60% of my footage is recorded while riding, so my camera needs to be small so I can hold it easily and not crash. Charging batteries is also very important, I usually poach plugs at any cafe or restaurant so I always have power. I also use a little tripod so I can set the camera up on the road and ride past it. It can be a pain but those shots are crucial to setting the scene. I have tons of footage of me pushing the record button and then running to my bike, riding past the camera and then running back to pick it up off the road.

Q2. Speaking of simple, light-weight equipment, are we looking at the shadow of your video camera that you use for all this stuff in the first few seconds of your “Cycling the Southern Tear” video? That sucker’s TINY. Do you really use equipment that small and simple?

Duzer: Yeah, I used the Canon 300HS for that ride. It’s a tiny photo camera that shoots great full res HD. In good light, the footage from that camera looks as good as any camera. I love having a small camera that I can whip out at any time. I keep it in a handlebar bag so I can pull it out quickly and film wildlife or anything else that pops in my view.

Q3. You studied journalism in college. How important was that training for your subsequent projects? You manage to produce interesting videos using simple audio/video gear, no lighting, no assistants — is there some underlying secret sauce you learned in J-school pulling these videos along? What do you think accounts for their success?

Duzer: No offense to my J-school but I was trained more as a dorky local news reporter than an adventure journalist. I did get training on Final Cut which was great, but the style I learned was in producing short news packages. My secret is to keep it simple-stupid, focusing more on the content than fancy gadgets. I’ll never get any high end commercial work, but that’s ok with me. My main goal is to produce fun, entertaining and inspiring content.

Q4. Your style seems pretty consistent across the videos: an audio narration over clips of you (subject) moving through a location (your point of view), with some additional shots of subjects/people/locations you find interesting — again with the narrative voiceover tieing these additional shots together. Is this style something you intentionally do? Or did it just evolve as you started shooting video?

Duzer: I think in order to tell a good story, you have to have some VO to tie everything together. I also focus on soundbites from the people I meet on my adventures…it’s a lot more interesting to mix it up with VO and interviews, my voice gets boring and I always find characters to spice up my videos.

Q5. Where did you start shooting video?

Duzer: My main goal is to host an adventure travel TV show and I got my start working in public access in Boulder. I had to shoot and edit all my own stuff which was a great learning experience. I created a show called ‘Out There’ which played for about a year starting in 2006. From there I began to get more professional jobs with Travel Channel and other travel websites.

Q6. What are you doing now and how has your work evolved from your earliest bike-trip videos?

Duzer: I just traveled to 17 cities in Europe for 60 days with a company called Viator, shooting over 100 short travel videos highlighting their tours. I’m also in production of a travel show I’m hosting called Paradise Hunter. My style is pretty much the same from my first bike trip videos, goofy and loud! I’m getting better at story telling and editing with every video and I’m always excited for the next project.

Commercial Style

I was quite taken by the visual impact of Corey Rich’s “New Mexico – True” commercial (https://vimeo.com/43133280). Corey Rich has a description about the production of this piece below the Vimeo projector — and it’s interesting to see how many people were involved in what he characterizes as a “small footprint production”. I count eight people, including Corey, but excluding the creative agency folks, talent casting team, the actors themselves, and a guest photographer. That’s a lot of headcount!

The script here is great. He got several less-than-enthusiastic comments about the voiceover reading the script, but it works for me. Music adds to this as well. I notice Corey works in pairs of images: a close-up followed by a wide, close-up followed by a wide (see 27 sec, 44 sec, 48 sec, and 51 sec (in reverse)). He sometimes couples that with a rack-focus technique (selectively focusing on a near object and then quickly adjusting focus to an object further away: see 10 sec, 13 sec, and 38 sec).

As was noted in the Vimeo comments, there is another video called “Perfect Summer in Michigan” that employs a very similar style. This video is produced by Pure Michigan, which sounds like a division of the state’s tourism department doing its own production work:

Visual techniques are different (lots of slow motion, less rack-focus, no “image pairs”), but the overall tone is remarkably similar. I think it’s the script, music and voiceover.

Is a “commercial template” evolving for this type of production?

Mullen Football – Revised

I’ve updated the original “sound piece” I posted a couple of weeks ago to include a character who guides us through the piece, providing a personal perspective through which viewers can experience high school football. In addition, since the purpose of this short film is to generate enthusiasm for the upcoming season (amidst players, students and fans), I wanted a player to share his views on where the team stands at this point in time. There’s been a lot of disruptive activity in the program that the boys are trying to set aside to focus on the upcoming season.

Jesse plays offensive line for the team. I asked him if he’d be up to a short video interview that I could use for the piece. He asked what the purpose of the film was; I told him I wanted a character to “make sense” out of the original footage I’ve gathered — someone to describe what the summer’s preparation was like and what the upcoming season means from a personal, participant level.

Jesse was great. He shared his thoughts on the team and on himself and what this upcoming year means for him. He’s looking to play football in college and this is an important season for recruiting. Mullen is also in a state of transition: the school administration fired Dave Logan (a 12-year NFL veteran who had taken the school to 4 Colorado state championships, 3 of them back-to-back in undefeated seasons) in late 2011, shaking up the football program and laying in a new coaching staff for the upcoming year. (The school administrators who made these decisions were, in turn, let go in the first 6 months of 2012.) All of this change was extremely distracting for players, particularly upcoming seniors like Jesse, who saw their program unravel before their eyes. Suddenly all the college recruiting expertise and connections to college scouts were gone. The new coaching staff brought in a new offensive strategy — something that typically takes a season or two to establish — so the advantage of working Dave Logan’s offensive scheme for a 4th season in front of college scouts was replaced with the disadvantage of learning and performing a new offensive playbook.

But Jesse’s attitude was positive and upbeat. He refers to Dave Logan’s firing, but didn’t dwell on it. He’s positive and optimistic about the season (which includes a very, very tough schedule including an out-of-state trip to California to play perennial powerhouse De La Salle High School outside of San Francisco).

I think adding a character significantly enhances the story, converting it from a simple (but relatively boring) “sound piece” to a character profile about a kid and his upcoming adventures.

The Character

In my most recent post, I noted that “I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.” Why? We can shoot footage of football (or any other activity) and carefully edit that footage into a tight series of interesting images and sounds, but until there’s someone the viewer cares about the clip is not particularly satisfying. We need a character with whom we identify, and through whom we experience the activity.

Tomorrow I meet with Jesse, one of the Mullen players who — with luck — will serve as the character for this short clip. He’ll explain it’s significance in human terms — what he has invested in the football program, what it means to him, how he sees it unfolding. If I get the interview content I’m looking for (video to introduce Jesse as narrator, audio to build out that narration), I’ll wrap Jesse in the video, audio and still imagery I’ve captured so far.

Stay tuned.

Sound Piece

Gearing up for football season is always an exciting time around our house. 2012 is no different. We have 2 boys, both play football but at different high schools. The programs are different – in some ways like night and day – so it’s an interesting contrast in styles, personalities and perspectives. But, hey, underneath it all at any football program is a lot of hard work. Sweat. Frustration. Exhaustion. Commeraderie. Competition. All that stuff which makes it such a fertile environment for honing multimedia skills. There’s a lot of action, a lot of passion and emotion, and if you stuff your camera in there some fantastic imagery.

There’s also wind, distracting noise, 250 lb. guys smashing into each other at full speed (with potential camera/audio gear collateral damage), swearing (high audio recording spikes), coaches who don’t know what you’re doing in their practice, and all kinds of additional impediments to a good multimedia story. Perfect!

Here’s a little “sound piece” that I put together during practice. Later in the season I’ll add some narration layers across the top of shorts like this to build up more of a story. And this year – my resolution each season – I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.

Stills captured with Nikon D700 and D300 using a 17-35 f/2.8 lens. Video capture with (new) GoPro HERO2 (I’m lovin’ this thing!) Audio capture with Audio Technica AT8035 shotgun mic mounted on a monopod (serving as a multi-use boom pole), pumped into Marantz 661 digital recorder. I dropped in one audio track (the “swoosh” sound) purchased off Pond5. Project edited in Final Cut.

It’s Sad to Revive This

Here’s a project I did a couple of years ago: Deer Creek to Columbine.  Unfortunately, in light of last night’s shooting at the Aurora Theatre (where 12 people died and 50 or so were injured) I thought again of this sad situation.  Why are so many gun-related shootings take place in Colorado, just miles from where I live and my children conduct their daily activities?

Do you think the frequency of gun-related shootings has anything to do with the easy access to guns?

This morning I awoke to read of the shooting.  My son wasn’t in his room — he had gone to the movie theatre at midnight to see the opening of the Batman movie.  A rapid sense of dread filled me as I realized my son might be one of these victims referenced in the news.  A quick browse around the house relieved my stress: my son was camped out in the basement with some friends.  But once again I’m too close to these shootings.  Scary.

Jordan Wolfson – Painter

Here’s the second in a series of portraits of artists and creatives. Jordan Wolfson is a painter who lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.

I had a great time speaking with Jordan. We both had intense experiences to share about living in Israel and working on Kibbutzim as young men.  I also started my artistic career painting and drawing, so Jordan’s experiences resonate with me.

In terms of a project, I arranged to meet and interview Jordan via a cold call.  He was very friendly and supportive.  We met at his studio and talked for awhile as I picked up audio of the interview with my shotgun mic mounted on a stand, piped into a Marantz 661 digital audio recorder.  After we spoke, I wandered around his studio taking stills as he worked and we chatted.  In retrospect I wish I had used my macro lens on the small pictures of roses that Jordan discusses in the film.  During post production I wanted a better visual illustration to Jordan’s voice when he says, “You can see the brushstrokes and the viscosity of the paint.”  I think I could also have picked up some different types of shots — 20/20 hindsight.  On the whole I’m pleased with the piece.  It captures our conversation (sans mention of Israel), and it includes a sense of Jordan’s anxiety as he pushes his painting forward.

The only thing I don’t like is how YouTube froze an image in the middle of the film and automatically used that as the “thumbnail” for display purposes.  More accurately, YouTube’s capture distorts the color of that image.  I can’t find a way to override the auto-select/auto-correct of that image.  Yuck.


Raymond McCrea Jones – Damian’s Ride

Raymond McCrea Jones worked as a journalist with the NY Times after finishing up his journalism degree at UNC. While at the NY Times, Jones did a number of very, very powerful multimedia projects, including “Damian’s Ride” which in my book is just flat-out magnificent.

Click image below for short film on NY Times site.

What struck me most about this project was Jones’ pacing and suspense. Jones begins with close-ups of Damian pedalling, but with sub-titles we quickly learn that something may not be right. “When I’m riding a bike I feel like a normal person….” we read — so why wouldn’t this guy feel like a normal person when he’s off a bike. Boom – in the first 12 seconds I’m hooked. At 0:36 seconds we learn more: Damian is training to compete in the Paralympics. Okay, but from the images at this point you don’t see what’s wrong. We’re 1:10 into this film before we see Damian’s face. By then we know his backstory, how as a boy he was electrocuted while trying to recover his kite, leading to his disfigurement.

Also striking is the transposition of beauty and, hmmm, how do I say this?: awful. Jones’ records richly colored images of Damian’s action and bike, especially in the early portions of the film. Then Jones gives us Damian’s face. Wow. Those two components placed so closely together is really emotionally charged.

Wonderful angles. Wonderful story. Wonderful resolution. This is just…wonderful.

Raymond McCrea Jones now works as a commercial photographer in Atlanta, GA.

Stream of Consciousness

Talking Eyes Media created this short film to promote Ed Kashi’s new book, “Photojournalisms”. (Click on image to activate the film)

This is a short film done is worth watching, as it presents some of Ed’s still images and a running almost stream-of-consciousness narrative to accompany the imagery. Ed discusses some of the emotions he feels working as a photojournalist for 30 years. Physical discomforts, fatigue, anxiety, longing for home and family — these are some of the phrases Kashi as narrator mentions in the film. This stream-of-consciousness narration allows me as a viewer to experience the compelling images from a different point of view. The narration begs me as listener to actively arrange and order the ideas presented into a coherent whole — and my reaction is amplified when still images also cycle past my eyes. I find I’m actively decyphering the bits and pieces that come past me (oral and visual) and reconstructing the piece as it evolves.

We need to employ this stream-of-consciousness technique more often. It honors the listener/viewer as an active participant, capable of forming their own conclusions based on raw information.

Check out another interesting use of this technique: Studs Terkel’s Prix Italia Award-winning audio piece called “Born to Live” (created over 50 years ago but still relevant today), available as a Podcast dated 11/5/2008 from Transom.

The Evolving High School Portrait

Here’s an interesting permutation of the high school portrait, employing audio interviews and ambient recordings with still photographs. (Click image for multimedia player.)

I like the quality of the sound – both interview tracks and recordings of ambient sound. I’m less thrilled with the still photos – to me the photographyer Tom Salyer (www.miamimultimediaphotographer.com) seems to use too many of very similar shots. I think he could insert a greater variety of still photographs and create parallel visual stories to keep the mind occupied while listening to the audio tracks. This guy is a very good photographer, so that incremental change would really enhance the final production in my opinion.

In his blog, it’s clear that photographer Tom Salyer is spending a lot of time working to perfect his audio recording skills. He also references some other photographers who are collaborating to add motion and sound to still photography.